At first, there was nothing. Then came roads, buildings, bigger roads, shopping malls, more roads, cities within the city, a palm tree with homes on it, the highest skyscraper, a new ‘downtown’ with fancy marina, islands shaped like the earth, and finally, just a few weeks ago, an indoor ski slope. So if you intend asking a Dubaiite what the city is like, give the pour soul some time to contemplate what it all means. But not too long, because who knows what shape the city would have taken by the end of his sentence.
Cities don’t change this way. They aren’t supposed to. Clear thinking resulting in immediate action is rare; Bombay knows this well. But Dubai, for three decades, has added one attraction after another. The first attempts involved baking the world’s longest cake and constructing the world’s biggest clock. We, silent residents, nodded our heads in disbelief. But there was the shopping festival, a milking of its own reputation. When that went off well, they had a summer shopping festival too. Malls sprung up quite literally. For many years Dubai had only one mall downtown. Now there were over 15 big ones, downtown had moved an hour’s drive away, and you still couldn’t find a parking spot.
Then there are the cities and towns within Dubai: Internet City, Media City, Sports City, Heritage Village, Knowledge Village and a $3billion Chess City, where each of the 32 buildings will resemble a chess piece. You’ll find Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and the International Cricket Council here, among others. One website called it “The Land of Really Humongous Projects”. The New Yorker titled its feature of the city “The Mirage”. Now plans are afoot for a monorail system by 2008 to ease the traffic, an underwater hotel – The Hydropolis – as well as Dubailand, a theme park twice the size of Disneyland in Florida. It can be quite disconcerting. Old hands will tell you that it’s not what it used to be. New hands will tell you there’s no place like it.
Every month it changes, grows larger and larger, employing more people, presenting more opportunities. A friend, bald from stress, stuck at a dead end job as art director in 2003 was by 2004 driving a blue convertible Mercedes, hair trailing in the wind. In the course of six hours, he said, he went from being fired to starting his own graphic design studio. His turnover in a year was over a million Dirhams (1.25 crore). I’d imagine there are similar stories in town. I’d also imagine there aren’t many places where dreams are fulfilled this quickly. Perhaps in California. In the 1948 Gold Rush.
And what of street crimes in three decades? Somewhere around zero. It’s safe at any time of the day, though my one complaint with the police force is that they’ve cut down their nightly patrol on horseback. That was mighty cool.
But before this sounds too much like a love note, here’s something irritating. Why do people from Dubai always ask you when you last visited and, smiling at the reply, say, “Oh, it’s changed a lot since then”? This hasn’t changed one bit.
An edited version of this piece appeared in DNA on Saturday, December 17.